May Chiu is a lawyer based in Montreal who spends much of her time engaged in grassroots political work. Part of a network of activists and organizers dissatisfied with the ways in which Quebec’s left establishment handles issues of racism and colonization, she is also one of the founding members of a new group called Pour une dignité politique (or For Political Dignity, in English). Scott Neigh interviews her interviews her about Pour une dignité politique’s work towards building an anti-racist and decolonial left in the province, and about Bill 21 and her personal involvement in the grassroots opposition to it.
Here’s the context: In North America, we all live in settler-colonial states that have been five centuries in the making. We are in an era of Donald Trump and of rising white supremacist extremism and fascism. In English-speaking Canada, these factors shape mainstream politics in particular ways, and the white-dominated left has so far failed to adequately respond to them in particular ways. And in Quebec, these factors shape mainstream politics in other ways, and the white-dominated left there fails to adequately respond somewhat differently. This episode is about Quebec, but it is important to be clear that Quebec is far from the only place with these sorts of problems.
As is true in most places, Quebec has seen more than a decade and a half of cutbacks and austerity, albeit often in the face of stiff social movement resistance. And for over a decade, mainstream political parties in Quebec – drawing more directly on European models than on what is usually seen in the rest of Canada and the United States – have floated various proposals often couched as “secularism” or as “reasonable accommodations” that would further embed Islamophobia and other forms of racism and discrimination in state practices.
Chiu has been involved in many different social movements and community struggles over the years, stretching back to the student solidarity movement against South African apartheid. She has also in the past been an activist and a candidate with Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing political party in Quebec that currently has 10 seats in the province’s legislature.
Over that time she has, along with others, become increasingly frustrated with what they see as the weakness of mainstream left movements and organizations in the province on issues of decolonization and anti-racism. These frustrations cover a broad range, extending from the basic reluctance by much of the white-dominated left in the province to truly grapple with the settler-colonial character of Quebecois society, to a refusal to prioritize the issues of racialized people beyond the level of rhetoric.
This is well illustrated by this year’s debate around Bill 21. This measure, proposed by the province’s right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, bans the wearing of religious symbols by many individuals employed in the public service as well as by teachers. It amounts to legalized discrimination, most visibly against Muslim women who wear head coverings, but against certain other groups as well. Taking a stand against discrimination so blatant that it requires invoking the constitution’s “notwithstanding clause” seems like a fairly basic left thing to do. But it took an immense amount of organizing within Quebec Solidaire to get the party to actually take a position against Bill 21, and it only did so a week or two before the government finally passed it.
At some point, the flurry of emails and skype calls and conversations over coffee among the network of which Chiu is a part turned into a commitment to a new political project. They decided that they wanted not only to have a way to make public criticisms of existing left institutions, but to begin building some kind of alternative. It has been in the works for over a year, but Pour une dignité politique announced its existence and the core of its politics to the world via a public statement it released in March.
The group is still in the early stages of development. Much of their work at the moment remains internal. They are, for instance, using reading groups as a tool for political self-education and to broaden and deepen the group’s politics. Their inaugural public event was a screening of a film about psychiatrist, writer, and anti-colonial revolutionary Franz Fanon. Their goal for the immediate future is to continue to build their organization through both internal and public conversations, through more public events, and in the context of dialogue with related political currents in France.
Image: By Charles Rondeau via Needpix.com
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.